The World Cup is a tournament like no other. Many sports have a world cup, but football’s is the World Cup. FIFA estimated the cumulative audience for the 2006 World Cup at 26.29 billion, with 715.1 million watching the final alone. In an age when appointment-to-view TV has disappeared through the Internet, the World Cup still maintains its hold over the globe.
This power comes from the greatest back catalogue of iconic sporting moments. Italia 90 and ‘Timofte against Bonner’ are seared into the Irish consciousness. Argentina have 1978 and a cathartic victory during a period of brutal military oppression. Street parties were strictly forbidden, yet thousands flooded the streets of Buenos Aires after their victory over Holland. In 1986, they had a barrel-chested guy that was not too bad either.
Similar reactions will come from Holland and Germany about 1974, in South Korea about 2002 – and yes, in England around 1966. You may have heard the English mention 1966 once or twice during the last 44 years of hurt, or boast about being potential World Cup winners.
Its role as the pre-eminent sporting tournament lends it a cultural significance that little else can match. Football can erase barriers in a way that politicians can only dream. East Germany’s victory over West Germany in 1974 saw football tear down the Berlin Wall fifteen years before the physical wall came down. For 90 minutes, Germany was united again. The World Cup can erase the invisible walls people build between each other. This allows people to forget their troubles, if only for a brief period.
The Ivory Coast saw a respite from a raging civil war to celebrate qualification for the 2006 World Cup. Jews and Palestinians play for the same Israeli team. Together they dream about qualifying for the tournament. In fact, Israel celebrated as one when the Palestinian Abas Soan broke Irish hearts with a last-minute equaliser during qualification for the 2006 World Cup.
This June, the world can become one and enjoy what has the potential to be a great tournament. Viewers from Bantry Bay to Bloemfontein will see Catalans and Basques aiming to win Spain’s first World Cup. North and South Korea will take part in the same tournament as the USA. Ireland will find sudden bonds with Uruguay and anybody else that stands between Thierry Henry and his famous hand seizing the World Cup. Above all, the world will forget politics and watch a feast of international stars aim to win the most cherished prize in football.